We suppose it's best to just get the negatives out right in front. The build of the NXE we tried out is incomplete, and, as such, had missing features and hiccuped during navigation every now and then. Microsoft told us that the NXE is feature-locked, and that the time remaining before release is being spent optimizing performance. That said, when it was fast (which was most of the time) it was fast.
"The time remaining before release is being spent optimizing performance."
We also found some of the placement choices for various NXE elements a bit confusing, particularly the much talked-about Netflix component, which we expected would be near the front of the "My Xbox / Video Library" section, but wasn't. (Netflix streaming wasn't functional in the build we tried.)
Enough with the quibbles, though. Now for the good stuff.
Creating Avatars is simple and, frankly, fun. The process is exactly as detailed in Microsoft's own video walkthrough, complete with the burping (in three octaves!). There's also an option to take a snapshot of your Avatar "acting" via emotes, which can then be set as your Gamerpic. We were able to check out how the Friends channel looked with various themes applied – both existing ones (Gears of War 2, for example) and the "2.0" offerings. The system default was fittingly green-and-white, with set pieces for our friends and their parties including the original chromed Xbox 1 prototype and the robot from the original Xbox 1 "Raven" tech demo.
There's no doubting that the NXE is more organized in terms of finding content – in fact, we asked MS if it's still planning to de-list poor-selling XBLA titles now that NXE has reduced much of the clutter, and its reps said no.
"It's fast, too, on the level of the PS3 XMB – if not faster."
Rather than a simple blade, pressing the Guide button brings up a extremely zippy, re-vamped "condensed" version of the "classic" 360 blades interface (to the tune of the Xbox 360 boot sound). Everything that could be done via the old dashboard can be found here, and more. It's fast, too, on the level of the PS3 XMB – if not faster.
The new Guide can be brought up at any point in any game, past or future, and its functionality – such as checking download status, browsing your games library, etc. – works without exiting to the NXE. In fact, you can launch from one game into another, just as on PS3 post firmware 2.4.
"We expect we'll spend most of our time using the revamped Guide."
Despite some shortcomings, we came away from our NXE demo feeling like MS had succeeded on two fronts. It has created an interface that's much more accessible and organized for all gamers and one that's tailor-made for the hardcore. We expect we'll spend most of our time using the revamped Guide, but everyone will probably decide upon their own particular navigation "mix" – and having that choice is very nice indeed.